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As published in The Wall Street Journal, September 10, 2002
September 11 had a riveting effect on the entire world, and not least on our children. Stunned as we all were in the first moments, it was easy to forget that our children were watching the whole time. For some parents, absorbed in trying to comprehend what was happening on their televisions and radios, it was hours before they realized that their young children were taking in all the horrific images and messages as well.
At that moment, most parents turned to their children, looked them in the eyes, and started to put the unfathomable into terms they could understand. For the youngest, the terms were most simple--"bad men did something very wrong that hurt a lot of people"--but also the most truthful.
An appropriate response to Sept. 11 begins with just that kind of moral clarity, the clarity that calls evil by its true name: Terms like "evil," "wrong" and "bad" were rightly put back into the lexicon. Sept. 11 also requires that we point to what is good and right and true. That dark day was pierced with rays of courage, honor and sacrifice, and they should be upheld for all to see--they, too, are enduring lessons.
We are living in a teachable moment. But some would squander this moment, or repudiate it altogether as though we have nothing to learn, nothing to teach.
While parents have tried to articulate truth for their children, many in the high halls of academia and in learned societies have been sending out a muddled and dishonest response to the attacks.
"I'm not sure which is more frightening: the horror that engulfed New York City or the apocalyptic rhetoric emanating daily from the White House," wrote Eric Foner, a distinguished professor of history at Columbia, in the London Review of Books. Other pseudo-sophisticated intellectuals began claiming the attack on the U.S. was a result of our policies, was our fault, and that our war was some form of vile neo-imperialism.
At the elementary and high-school level, the National Education Association has been no more helpful. This summer, the NEA released a curriculum designed to help students cope with Sept. 11. The curriculum was more about getting in touch with feelings than it was about understanding the true nature of Sept. 11, and the true nature of life itself.
What should students learn about Sept. 11? First, American students must be taught about America. Love of this country must be learned; we cannot assume it will grow without cultivation. American patriotism is soundest when it is rooted in knowledge about this nation's heritage in the context of world history, so that young people can arrive at the judgment that this is, indeed, a great land. To do so, children must also be taught that there are moral absolutes; that right and wrong do exist. For too long, those in elite circles have told us that right and wrong are merely opinions or matters of personal taste. No serious thinker can see Sept. 11 as anything but evil and wrong--terms that the academy has mocked and now fails to recognize in their starkest form.
My concerns about young people's lack of knowledge about America and morality were confirmed, regrettably, in a poll conducted this summer by my project, Americans for Victory over Terrorism (www.avot.org). The survey of American college students and their knowledge and beliefs about the war on terrorism revealed an ignorance of our national leaders, an ignorance of world events, and an ignorance of what it means to be an American. More students can identify Yasser Arafat than Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld. A quarter of our male college students say they would evade the draft today--in a war following the worst attack on our shores since 1812. Astonishingly, only 25% of college students think the values of this country are superior to the values of other countries. These Americans don't know the greatness that is America, and if they do, they haven't been taught about the evils of the world, the evils of tyranny most relevantly represented by Islamo-fascism.
The AVOT poll confirms that teaching works. These college students were in junior high and high school in the 1990s, when morally relative values clarification was the going theory in public education. (It wasn't until the late 1990s that Ben Wattenberg's reminder that "Values Matter Most" sank in, and ideas like character education started taking root.) They learned that right and wrong are subjective. They learned that "tolerance" is the supreme value and that making moral judgments is wrong (an illogical concept on its face).
Sept. 11 has underscored the importance of teaching morality and patriotism, two ideas that have lost favor. American students should be taught what makes this nation great. They should learn the bedrock principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, ideas like equality, freedom and justice under law. They should know about the honor and courage of 1776, what Abraham Lincoln did to preserve this union, and how so many laid down their lives to defend freedom in America and abroad during the world wars. Nowhere else has freedom flourished like it has in America; never before in the history of the world have so many around the globe benefited because there is a land of the free and a home of the brave. Even with its faults, America remains the best nation on earth--which is one lesson never to be forgotten: We were attacked for our virtues, not our sins.
"Am I embarrassed to speak for a less-than-perfect democracy?" asked former Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan. His answer: "Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don't. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do."
Because our greatness is being denigrated, unlearned and forgotten, it has become a moral imperative to teach it. And a fair reading and teaching of our history will reveal, once again, that we truly are the "last, best hope of Earth."
Mr. Bennett, a co-director of Empower America and former secretary of education, is the author, most recently, of "Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism." (Doubleday, 2002).